Roger Naylor Special for The Republic (CNT) City News And Talk #arizona
Fall may be the best time of year for Arizona hiking, and that has nothing to do with the changing leaves. October is simply a formal invitation to go outside and play. Weather-wise, no corner of the state is off limits in these early weeks of autumn.
Clear skies and soft slanted sunlight add a definite richness to the red rocks of Sedona and the layered cliffs of Grand Canyon. Deserts have begun to cool off at last. Yet there’s still enough daylight warmth to make leaf peeping at higher elevations a memorable outing.
Because most people will be flocking to the aspen groves, here are some other amazing Arizona fall hikes far from the crowds.
Sunsites: Cochise Trail
The Dragoon Mountains rise from shaggy grasslands east of Tombstone. They’re a long narrow range, a chaotic clutter of rough granite boulders. Twisted pine trees, mesquites, yuccas and oaks with piously bowed limbs add a fringe of greenery to the angled stone slabs.
These ramparts once provided refuge to the Apache leader Cochise. In the mountains, Cochise and his followers could find food, water and medicine, and had a commanding view of the valleys below.
Starting from the Cochise Stronghold Campground, a lone path threads its way up the eastern slope to Cochise Stronghold. For the first mile the trail weaves through a lush canyon bottom dotted with manzanita, beargrass and yucca.
Clustered boulders frequently interrupt the dense screen of vegetation. After a few moderate switchbacks you’ll reach Halfmoon Tank, a stock pond supporting a small riparian community ringed by granite pinnacles.
It’s 3 miles to the saddle that marks Stronghold Divide, a rugged but peaceful little meadow. Most people use this as a turnaround point but the trail continues, dropping steeply down the western slope for another 2 miles. The rock-crowned cliffs and bald domes are even more prominent before the trail ends at a 4WD road amid oak and juniper woodlands.
Where: From Tucson, take Interstate 10 east 72 miles to U.S. 191. Turn south and drive 17.5 miles to Ironwood Road. Turn right and drive 9.2 miles to Cochise Stronghold Campground. Portions of Ironwood Road are graded dirt but suitable for all vehicles.
Length: 10 miles round trip.
Details: 520-364-3468, https://www.fs.usda.gov/coronado.
Flagstaff: Sandys Canyon Trail
This time of year most visitors to Flagstaff will be heading up the slopes of the San Francisco Peaks seeking out the golden aspens, leaving this lovely trail less used. Take advantage of that. Surprises lurk in this slender gorge just off Lake Mary Road. The trail traces the rim of the small canyon before plunging through mixed forest heavy with underbrush.
Upon reaching the canyon floor, it becomes an idyllic stroll through grassy fields framed by walls of towering stone. Farther along you’ll find startling cross-bedded cliffs in sunset hues. These petrified sand dunes add a touch of the exotic in this intimate place.
The pathway is only about a mile long but it ends at a junction with the Arizona Trail, so you could theoretically tack on an extra 800 miles if you were feeling feisty. Or bite off just a portion of that. Head north on the Arizona Trail to Fisher Point, or go east toward Marshall Lake.
Where: Drive southeast out of Flagstaff 5.5 miles on Lake Mary Road. Follow the signs for Sandys Canyon Trailhead.
Length: 2 miles round trip.
Details: 928-526-0866, https://www.fs.usda.gov/coconino.
Prescott: Watson Lake Loop
A series of connected trails encircles sparkling Watson Lake, weaving through the Granite Dells, a stony wonderland of massive boulders, weathered and piled into exotic formations.
You’ll find free parking just south of Watson Lake Park. Follow the path down the hill and turn right. Big cottonwood trees cradle the southern toe of the water and wrap around Granite Creek. This lush spot is Watson Woods Riparian Preserve. The 126-acre preserve harbors the largest patch of riparian forest in Prescott.
You’ll emerge from the preserve onto the Peavine Trail, a wide thoroughfare along the eastern bank popular with bikers, joggers and stroller-pushing moms. Peel off onto Lakeshore Trail at the first opportunity. This dirt single-track skirts the water’s edge as it twists among the Dells.
There’s an enticing wildness to this side of the lake, a maze of stacked rock domes accessorized with yucca and cactus, oak and pine. The Over the Hill Trail cuts right through the Dells, in and out of rocky gullies until crossing a marshy swath at the base of Watson Dam. Water gushes from the midsection of the dam, creating a corridor of tangled wetlands shaded by cottonwoods and willows.
Then the Northshore Trail clambers up a steep rock face and delivers stunning panoramas. Follow the water’s edge back to your starting point.
Where: From downtown Prescott, travel north on State Route 89 for about 5 miles to the parking area on the right.
Length: 4.8-mile loop.
Details: 928-777-1122, http://www.prescott-az.gov.
Dolan Springs Trail System
A Joshua tree is part majestic, part mournful, and looks like something created by Dr. Seuss. Some of the best hiking in a Joshua tree forest is at the edge of Dolan Springs, a wisp of a town north of Kingman. An army of volunteers carved a 6-mile network of interconnected trails out of the high desert at the base of Mount Mitten.
Three trailheads provide easy access to well-engineered and mostly level pathways. Even being close to town, a lovely sense of solitude pervades. The densest groves of Joshua trees can be found along the T & C Loop and Cholla Loop.
Print out a map from the website before you arrive to help navigate your route. The T & C Loop cuts between low-shouldered hills and along the slopes you’ll spot some impressive Joshua tree specimens, a riot of leafy daggers. Early Mormon settlers named them. The plant’s shape reminded them of the Biblical story of Joshua raising outstretched hands to the heavens.
Where: From Kingman, drive north on U.S. 93 for 28 miles. Turn right on Pearce Ferry Road and continue for 7 miles. Turn right on 13th Street, just past Mount Tipton School, and proceed to a small parking area. Other trailheads are at 14th and 15th streets.
Length: Up to 6 miles.
Details: 928-716-3362, http://www.dolanspringstrails.com.
Sedona: Sketch-Ridge Loop
With the trailhead tucked away on Chavez Ranch Road, this loop is seldom crowded. From the parking area, walk back down the road to Ridge Trail, turning right to amble uphill. Veer off on Sketch as it enters from the left. Then hold on to your hat.
While Ridge Trail climbs across the middle of the plateau, Sketch pushes out to the edge. The early portion of Sketch is an exposed path clinging to the eastern rim of Carroll Canyon. With nothing but air on one side views are epic. You’ll especially enjoy a good look at the distinctly triangular Pyramid, one of Sedona’s lesser-known formations.
Sketch follows the contours of the rim, and soon the drop-offs seem less severe. As the trail curves east you’re treated to a panorama of Thunder Mountain and Coffee Pot Rock. Soon you’ll reach another junction with Ridge. Turn south on Ridge as it meanders through scrubby woodland and then drops downhill amid expansive views of Cathedral Rock and the Oak Creek floodplain.
Where: From the State Route 179/89A traffic circle in Sedona, travel west on 89A (toward Cottonwood) for 4.2 miles to Upper Red Rock Loop Road. Turn left and go 1.5 miles to Chavez Ranch Road. Turn left and proceed 1 mile to the locked gate where you’ll find several parking spaces. Walk back 200 yards the way you came on Chavez Ranch Road to Ridge Trail.
Length: 2.7-mile loop.
Details: 928-203-2900, https://www.fs.usda.gov/coconino.